The Eastern Hajar mountains are a permanent companion as you drive down the north-eastern coast of Oman from Muscat towards Sur.
Their ochre flanks are often shrouded in a dusty haze and old stone forts stand sentinel on the peaks. Behind them lies the dry interior of Oman and the edge of the vast Arabian desert. Just the thought of it is enough to make me reach for my water bottle.
The Hajar mountains receive the majority of Oman’s sparse rainfall and over time the flow of water down them has carved out numerous gorges. A gorge is known as a wadi in Arabic and there are plenty to explore in Oman, many of which are veritable oases in this dry country.
We’d been told by various people that Wadi Shab, an uninhabited wadi with no roads running into it, was a must-visit during our time here. For those willing to explore, we heard, at the heart of the wadi is a hidden pearl – a secluded cave containing a deep pool of pure, turquoise water, the entrance to which is through an underwater tunnel.
A Trip Advisor search confirmed the stories – “Egypt has pyramids, Oman has Wadi Shab” said one reviewer. A huge claim. Would it live up to the hype?
Sproglet and Juan Valdez took the weekend off to show us around in their trusty Jeep and after a night at a nearby hotel we rolled up to the entrance of the wadi at 8.30am. As we had hoped, it was still too early for most people and the parking lot was almost empty. The only sound was the bleating of the goats that were nosing around for some food and the sound of the occasional car driving over the ugly highway flyover that bridges the mouth of the wadi.
Already the air felt hot and heavy.
We skinned up Sproglet’s iPad to use as a waterproof camera, slathered ourselves in suncream and headed down to the river. A boat was waiting to take us the short distance to the other side. We nominated Sproglet as the official negotiator but still ended up paying 0.500 OMR each, 0.300 more than the official price. We promptly fired Sproglet as the official negotiator.
There wasn’t an obvious path other than to just follow the river upstream and after forty minutes of negotiating rocky catwalks and climbing over boulders, we finally reached a point beyond which we’d have to start wading and swimming through the river. We were all drenched with sweat.
We ditched our bags and shed our shoes in favour of flip flops. Having seen few other people around, I forgot we were in a conservative country and made the mistake of stripping to just my bikini and sunhat. As we topped up on sunscreen, one of us managed to smear some directly over the camera opening on the iPad case so, sadly, all our pictures from then on are blurred.
It was a relief to dunk our overheated bodies in the clear water and we were amazed at how cold it was considering the heat. Pond skaters and dragonflies skittered away as we paddled through and we spotted baby frogs relaxing in shady depressions in the boulders scattered through the river.
We made our way through a series of pools, our flip-flops coming in handy on the pebbly sections but mostly just flapping around and making it hard to swim in the deeper parts. Eventually we came up with the genius plan of clipping them to my bra strap so that I felt like I’d grown some underdeveloped foam wings.
Soon we reached a dead-end – two enormous hunks of rock were blocking the way. Deep water pooled at their base and just at the bottom of the large crack separating them was a glint of light and a tiny gap.
Just at that moment a French family popped out of the gap. The kids were excited and the father’s eyes lit up as he told us how beautiful the cave beyond was. He assured us it was a short underwater swim to get inside and seemed keen to make sure we weren’t about to turn back without going in.
With some difficulty and a few wardrobe almost-malfunctions, we unhooked the flip flops from my bra and left them on a rock at the edge of the pool. We approached the tiny gap. Just under the water the rock wall ended and so it was possible to swim the few meters under it and into the cave behind (check it out in the video at the bottom of this post!). It was also possible, however, to wedge head and shoulders into the crack between the rocks and tread water while pulling yourself through the narrow tunnel. A slightly more claustrophobic method but one I was more comfortable with as I could keep my head above water.
In this fashion we wormed our way through the opening, not knowing what was on the other side. I emerged into a deep pool of crystal clear water. Sunlight streamed in through openings in the cavern above, penetrating the water and bouncing off the white, pillowy rocks below. The surface of the pool glittered and its depths were cast in a deep turquoise – a beautiful, unbelievable colour that no photo could ever do justice to. The water tasted pure and mineralised – it was like swimming in a vat of Evian!
A small waterfall cascaded down one side, the gushing of the water amplified in the small space so that it sounded like a torrent.
We were totally alone, the whole cave to ourselves. Our voices echoed as we shouted over the noise of the waterfall. Sproglet, Juan Valdez and I pulled ourselves up onto a ledge to rest our legs. Stacker went straight to the rope hanging by the waterfall. He pulled himself up and soon disappeared up the side of the waterfall and out of sight.
I looked up and was surprised to see a young boy in armbands on a rock balcony overlooking the pool. There was clearly more to explore. I plunged back into the Evian, swam to the rope and with a few grunts pulled my big ass out of the water, followed soon after by JV.
While trying to put visions of the rope snapping out of my head, I climbed my way up the waterfall. Halfway up we met the boy from the balcony and his parents on their way down. They were the only other people we would see in the cave that day.
At the top we found Stacker and another, less sheltered pool. We all jumped in and JV went nosing around for more hidden entrances. He turned up nothing except for a cluster of pond skaters. “There are creatures!” he called back, making me scamper out of the pool imagining spiky snakes and untold horrors. I laughed when I realised he just meant the insects.
Looping back around the cave entrance and scrambling over some boulders, we found the rock balcony. It was made of stone that was so polished by dripping water that it was deceptively slippery even though it wasn’t wet. It was wide enough that a slide wouldn’t matter but Stacker and I conceded defeat while the braver JV went out to wave at Sproglet who was relaxing in the cave below.
On our way down, rather than trusting to the rope, we hurled ourselves off the face, plunging deep into the crystal blue pool below.
Another rest on the ledge and it was time to slither back through the tunnel and make our way back to our stuff.
There were more people about now, heading towards the cave or bathing in the pools on the way. A group of young local men were larking around in the last pool, near our stuff. I emerged from the water last and suddenly they went quiet. I felt their gaze follow me. I glared over at them, thinking I could shame them into looking away but they just looked right back at me as if they’d never seen skin before. It was an uncomfortable walk back to my clothes. Next time I’ll wear a rash vest over my bikini I thought, while simultaneously thinking why should I have to?
After a quick Snickers to restore our energies, we made our way back up the wadi to find that it had been transformed. There were people everywhere: families picnicking, groups of young men with whole cases of Mountain Dew were making music, others jumping into the pools from cliffs high above the water. Kids were playing football on the beach closer to the entrance. The tantalising smell of meats being grilled was in the air and a definite holiday atmosphere prevailed.
Lonely Planet states that Wadi Shab means “gorge between cliffs” but an Arabic friend translated it for me as “Valley of Youth.” I prefer his translation – the wadi is a place of stunning beauty but also a place of play, an escape from everyday life and the unforgiving Omani sun.
Just relaxing in the shade of the cliffs and bathing in the cool waters is reason enough to come to Wadi Shab if you’re ever in Oman but no visit is complete without discovering Wadi Shab’s hidden turquoise jewel. Egypt has the pyramids, Oman has Wadi Shab.
Through their eyes
- A look a wadi wildlife: A Walk Up Wadi Shab
- Andy in Oman’s blog is packed with lots of Oman info and he has been to Wadi Shab many times: The Secret Cave at Wadi Shab!
- Nomad in the land of Nizwa says you can jump from the rock balcony I mentioned: Cliff Jumping In The Hidden Caves of Wadi Shab
- The underwater method for those with waterproof cameras (by Torben Bundgard on YouTube):